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Tuesday, 17 December 2019

When the present is unspeakable, give me the warm glow of nostalgia – every time.

The 447 bus that has maintained a close hold on my affections for over 60 years 

I am still not free to talk about the shit-storm that has enveloped my Sherlock The Musical enterprise. And that, largely, accounts for my silence over the past few months. Once upon a time we were a happy creative band dreaming up a musical in a pub. It was so easy. We hardly even bothered to agree terms. That was our first mistake. But we got it off the ground, launched it, sat and enjoyed the rapturous applause of packed houses… And now look at us: no one of us talking to the other – except surreptitiously or through lawyers. No money coming in. Just bitterness, feuding, accusations and legal threats flying like wind-blown leaves across an empty stage. Cast members hurled aside on a whim. Remind me never to go near a theatre again – at least not as a writer. And I may well be saying the same about the fair city of Cologne in due course. These things can leave such a bitter taste in your mouth.

Some time soon, when the lawyers have decided how to proceed, I will be free to talk about it in detail. Right now, I am withdrawing into nostalgia.

I found this model on eBay and had to have it. The London Country Bus service 447 served the tiny little world I grew up in, in darkest Surrey, from birth to age 6. Never mind what this model says about going to Woldingham and Caterham. That’s simply wrong. This bus served Reigate, Redhill, Meadvale and Merstham. I know: I lived in all four places. Later I went to school at Caterham and took the 411 bus there, term after term for seven years, and it was a double-decker. The 447 was my bus, for my neighbourhood.

But I forgive the model-makers. They got the number right, and that's what matters right now. I have never forgotten the numbers – four four seven – nor eradicated their consoling cadence from my mind. And whenever I think of them I see in my mind’s eye this beautifully compact vehicle in all its holly-green glory. I hear the gentle purr of its engine, the swish of its tyres, but most of all I see the welcoming yellow light that illuminated so many a night-time fog, that hove cheerily into sight on so many frosty evenings. I remember how I stood, Sunday after Sunday when church was over, bare legs shivering below the hem of a cold mackintosh. And I remember clambering eagerly aboard to be enveloped in a warmth, a fragrant smoky warmth, that matched anything we ever cooked up in our own draughty living-room.

In those days – I’m talking about the 1950s – there were a number of public spaces that offered more heat, more colour, more comfort, certainly more diversion, than the homes most of us grew up in. There was the cinema, of course; there was the pub – although that was a pleasure reserved uniquely for adults – and there was the bus, especially the single-decker London Transport bus, red or green. To settle into those firm, upholstered seats, to reach out and grasp the heavy, chrome-plated rail of the seat in front as the tightly fitted doors closed and we swung away from the kerb, was to revel in a rare kind of luxury. A memory to hold close and cherish.

So now I have this beautiful model on my window-sill. I am managing to ignore the incorrect destinations and concentrate on the numbers. Four four seven. A magical combination; music to my ears.

Monday, 7 October 2019

In a maelstrom of political chaos, there are still... vegetables. And flowers. And nuts.

A selection of food gathered on a wet, cold October afternoon.

Life isn't easy at the moment. Like many of my fellow Brits I fear for our future. I am anti-Brexit and anti-Johnson. I don't see much to cheer me. Throw in the continual ludicrous utterances of that gibbering fruitcake across the Atlantic, and the general state of this fragile planet; throw in the shenanigans that have become a part of daily life since my involvement with Theatre Folk, and is it any wonder I have the urge to sleep eleven hours at a stretch? Or that my dreams are infested with bizarre combinations of such matters? 

So, on a cold, wet October afternoon, what a delight it was to come home from a walk in the woods with another sack-full of hazel nuts, to trot down to the allotment and pick yet more fat autumn raspberries, a few spuds, a leek, the last of the runner beans and a bunch of beetroot. Plus a handful of surviving sweet peas to put a little more colour on our kitchen table.

These things keep me sane, for a hour or two.

I mentioned Theatre Folk, even though I would love to forget about them. My venture into the crazy world of musical theatre in Germany is fast becoming a nightmare. With luck, I will be in a position to 'tell all' before long. And then vow never to go near a theatre again, unless as a disinterested spectator.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The cowboy looked me up and down. 'What did ya, lose a bet?' he asked.

So Labor Day has come and gone. Despite being preoccupied with Brexit, and the unseemly behaviour of the grotesque toffs that have infested British politics, I did note the passing of the USA’s last public holiday before Thanksgiving. It marked an anniversary.

Twenty-five years ago, on Monday 5th September 1994, I set off on a journey to get the measure of Nebraska.

I’d been studying the state’s literature and history for some time, and had made two road trips, in 1991 and ’93 – first along the Oregon Trail, then into the Panhandle to visit Mari Sandoz’ sister Caroline.

Listening to her talk about the old days in Nebraska, I decided I needed to know the place better, to get the feel of it. I came up with a journey. State line to state line, from the banks of the Missouri to the Wyoming border, from the lowest point, 840 feet above sea level, to the highest, 5424. On a bicycle, which I would have to borrow. I'd not, at this stage, heard of the annual Bike Ride Across Nebraska, or BRAN.

I started in the little town of Rulo, and over the next ten or twelve days made my way along the Republican river valley, north to the Platte, finally following Lodgepole Creek towards Kimball. As the temperature hovered around the mid-90s, parts of my face and arms turned a dark shade of brown. I developed white crow’s feet. My ankles got burned, as did the tops of my ears. My front tyre blew at seven one morning and I found to my horror that there was nothing out there to lean a bike against – no fence, no wall, no telegraph pole. I was chased by dogs, several of them. I talked to strangers in bars, cafés, in the shade of grain elevators, in small-town museums and family-run diners. I camped in State Parks and in city parks. I was haunted in my tent at night by cackling maniacs – and only realised years later that I’d been listening to nothing more sinister than a bunch of coyotes. I sheltered in whatever shade I could find: under lone cottonwoods, rustling cornstalks, and on one occasion in the shadow of a little camper-van beside Highway 30 – after asking the driver’s permission.    

After several days with a balmy wind behind me, the weather turned. At Ogallala a storm blew through town, flooding the streets and re-arranging the trash cans. By next morning the temperature had dropped fifty degrees, the wind had made an about turn. And it had freshened up some. Fifty-five miles an hour, I was reliably informed by the guy in the pick-up who rescued me from the ensuing dust-storm, took me into Chappell in his pick-up and handed me over to his mother. She fed me, then put me up for the night. Cowboys, eh?

At Kimball, you have to turn off the highway onto dirt roads to find Promontory Point. That was the best part of the ride. Now convinced that I would make it, I enjoyed myself. There was no traffic, the weather had settled down, and the fields were full of wheat stubble and sunflowers. I passed a delightful old schoolhouse, and saw a herd of deer cross the road in from of me and disappear - like water sinking through sand.

I arrived at my destination around midday and found a concrete obelisk marking the state’s highest point, over a mile high. They had a metal desk there, and inside it a notebook filled with signatures. I added mine, after checking through a few pages to make sure I was the first Brit.

Back in England, I wrote a book about my trip. I called it Mountaineering in the Sierra Nebraska. I briefly thought I’d sold it to a Midwest publisher, but for some reason they pulled the plug. It languished under my desk for many years, and then, three years ago I re-branded it and published it myself. The new title was a gift – from an old-timer I met on a seat outside a barber shop in Red Cloud. I had a cracked bearing and wanted to know if there was anyone in town who fixed bikes. ‘We-ell, there used to be a guy,’ he said, pausing to light a cigarette and scratch his head. Then, with superb timing, he added the words which gave me title. ‘But he died.’

If you’d like to read There Used to Be a Guy… But He Died, it’s available from amazon in hard copy at $10.95, or on Kindle at $4.33:


Thursday, 11 July 2019

On turning... can it really be 70?

It was a great birthday celebration, and it seemed to last all week. We had five days of visitors – from Sweden, London, West Virginia, Cornwall, Wales… people who have known me twenty, thirty, even sixty years and were still willing to travel huge distances to enjoy my company. And of course there was the party: 50-odd friends and family converging on a little village hall in the far north of Northumberland, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Scottish border. Quaint, isn't it?
Cuddystone Hall, just a few miles south-west of Wooler, Northumberland
It was a strange feeling, seeing people connected with the many phases of my past, and realising that they were part of – well, I was going to say a jigsaw, but I feel that ‘mosaic’ would be a more appropriate word, because my career has been fragmented, to say the least. Fifty jobs and thirty addresses at the last count. But my goodness, I have collected some great and loyal friends along the way.

We enjoyed a relaxed afternoon: cakes and tea was followed by a duck race on the stream that flows down the College Valley.
College Burn, scene of the duck-race. A challenging course. 
Between us we had five grandsons attending, and I was delighted to see the older three high above us, exploring the sides of the mountains that rose to the north. I was reminded of the days, in the 1950s, when I roamed the bracken-covered hillsides of Surrey and found solace in the woods. Fortunately these particular youngsters didn’t have any matches with them.

In the evening we ate supper and danced. Well, we did our best, to the accompaniment of an excellent band. There’s always an element of confusion in a decent ceilidh, and I certainly did my best to see that nothing went as smoothly as it was supposed to. At times you can feel pretty inept trying to follow all the moves, but I take comfort from the realisation that nobody ever has time to laugh at you. When you’re ‘stripping the willow’ or ‘galloping’ through a row of fellow dancers, desperately trying to remember whether the caller said ‘left’ or ‘right’ – and in any case realising that you’re suddenly incapable of distinguishing one foot from the other – you can bet that most of the other dancers are having the same trouble.

It can be a rather forlorn moment when a party ends, and the guests trickle away into the night. When will we meet again, and all that? (Quite a thought-provoking question when you’re about to turn seventy). This was when I was glad we had arranged overnight accommodation for thirty or so in a bunkhouse tucked away upstream. It meant there was time to talk further over a leisurely breakfast, in a calmer atmosphere, with one or two friends I hadn’t seen since my 60th. (Was that really ten years ago?)

Back home there were more guests to entertain, but by Tuesday the last ones had  departed, and we were left to celebrate my actual birthday in peace. However, there was still time for one more golden moment, when a charming young woman wished me happy birthday and told me she had assumed this was my sixtieth.

My joy is complete. I shall embark on my eighth decade with hope and positivity.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The sky-diving Elvis impersonator: or, that’s why I keep a journal.

I was collating income and expenditure figures for my year-end accounts. I could almost see the energy oozing out of my pores as I sank lower in my seat. It wasn’t long before I was speculating about the next paying proposition, and where it might come from.

Left field is the answer, of course. They always come from left field, as a random flip through my collected journals never fails to remind me.

My journals now stretch back 25 years. In that time I have published 25 books, written another dozen that await their moment, and over 200 TV scripts. I have read, assessed and written reports on 500 manuscripts, written a whole bunch of  miscellaneous articles, reviews and short stories… and still had those dry stretches that sent me out to work as a barman, a racecourse bookie, a lab assistant. And all the time I’ve been firing off enquiries, filling out applications for residencies and scholarships, presenting ideas to editors, publishers and entrepreneurs, drafting proposals for TV series, radio dramas, documentaries and corporate histories... as well as fielding enquiries from countless people who insist that the story of their amazing life will earn them millions and give me a fat percentage.

Yes. Well. Yesterday I flipped through a couple of months’ entries from around 2002-03. That brief span threw up all kinds of endeavours that I’d more or less forgotten – and reminded me how much energy I had in those days. Energy generated by desperation. Because conjuring up some kind of income, month in month out for 25 years, takes some doing.

The first thing I find is a record of protracted discussions with an outfit called RANY. I think it stands for Rural Arts North Yorkshire. The long and short of it is that I attend several meetings and draw up plans for a series of writing courses for old people in care, and their carers. Yes. Except that it’s all done on spec, and I will only be paid if the courses happen. Which they don’t.

At the same time there are ongoing talks with BBC Bristol: someone is making a film about their series Vets In Practice, for which I wrote the scripts. It will be shot in Birmingham, and I will be paid £250 for an interview. I remember that well: I blew it big time, letting slip, on camera, that I was not impressed by Christopher Timothy’s acting ability. Got the fee, but never made the final cut. They would, however, invite me to a tenth anniversary bash at Bristol a few weeks later.

There follows a flurry of correspondence with the travel editor at the Sunday Times. She has published a number of my pieces but is (a) cutting the fee, due to the Iraq War looming and (b) telling me that, although my writing is very much to her taste, I really need to write about the kind of places that an average ST reader would take his wife and kids for a fortnight’s holiday. Not ‘my wild camping adventures in the desolate wastes of western Arizona’. Later she would write and tell me, ‘If I were rich I would be your patron, but meanwhile…’

Next up I see an email coming in from the gal at Radio 4 who produced my play. Aha, she never emails to say we haven’t made it, so this must be good news.  It isn’t.  She is vexed, having been asked specifically to re-submit my idea about Willa Cather’s relationship with A E Housman, only to have it rejected.

While I am in that Radio 4 vein I chase up a maverick producer who likes my ideas and is considering several of them… but who will, a few pages later, tell me she’s resigning from the BBC because it is now run by timorous youths with no sense of history.

In September I go to jail. Preston, to be specific. I recall an unhealthily warm environment, a lot of pale green paint, everyone walking at a sluggish pace, as if sedated… and a long interview. I am applying for a post as a writer in residence and am turned down that very evening. They tell me they aren’t sure I know why I want the job. (It’s the money, stupid.)  I see their point, which is why I withdraw from another interview at H.M. Prison Lincoln the following week.

Between times I continue to write reports for The Literary Consultancy and teach by correspondence for the Open College of the Arts. Somehow I find time to go for an interview for a job as… an interviewer. Market research. And draw another blank.

Unsolicited emails trickle in: one from a woman who contacted me some months ago about one-to-one tuition; another from a woman who has drafted her life story. She wants me to take her 280,000-word ms and reduce it to 100,000. We agree fees and star work.

I apply to work as a Writing Support Tutor at York St John University, composing a ten-minute presentation on ‘Issues Arising From Student Writing’.  The interview, when it comes, starts badly and gets worse.  Among the questions they ask me is, ‘Do you feel happier working with groups or one to one?’ ‘One to one’ is clearly the wrong answer. They phone that evening to tell me so.   

Money drifts in from time to time: a cheque for £26 from Granada TV for sales to New Zealand of one of my old Emmerdale episodes.

Somewhere I read about an artist-in-residence post in the South Dakota Badlands, and spend an age drafting 3500 words on ‘My Love Affair with the Great Plains’.

I take the train down to the BBC party in Bristol. A director I have worked with throws her arms around me. ‘Alan! I’ve been meaning to email you!’ Another talks enthusiastically of the real prospect of some writing work - next year – without mentioning that he will retire three months later. Someone else tells me they’ll need a script writer for the Vets’ Christmas Special. My series producer is one of several people who bounce up and ask, ‘What are you working on now?’ Telling media folk that you’re actually on a dry run is never a good idea.

And then comes one of those out-of-the-blue queries. A partner at one of the world’s  largest accounting firms has seen one of my corporate histories and wants to talk. Soon. When so-and-so recovers from his heart attack. (I suspect he never did, and the project died with him.)

New manuscripts come in for appraisal. There’s a 298-pager on ‘my fifteen years living and working in Asia’ (for Asia, read Korea, Japan and occasional trips to Hong Kong and Australia).  I write a 4750ww report explaining at great length how to write stories from diaries and notes. (A clue: not by transcribing them.)

Now, here’s one of which I have no recollection whatsoever: a trip to Middlesbrough for a BBC get-together of wannabe northern writers. All I get from that is the realisation that I’ve probably had all the breaks the other attendees sought, but have failed to capitalise on them.

Now comes a sequence of phone calls with a 100-year-old grocery chain who have been keeping me interested for five long years in a possible history. Soon, they said. We’ll soon be making a firm decision. (They never did.)

Another random email, arriving a little after six one evening, comes from an agent who’s found me on the Society of Authors’ website. She’s looking for a biographer for a Holocaust survivor. Great excitement, which ultimately leads nowhere.

A former tutee writes, asking me to read and assess a short play he’s written. Sure thing. That’ll be £75.

Did all of this really happen in eight weeks? Well, that’s what the journal tells me. And I still find time to host a committee meeting for the OCA, notching up a £130 fee. This is where I offer the opinion that at £13 an assignment I can’t afford to give more than one hour to any piece of work. A certain poet disagrees, telling us that he likes to mull each poem over for a day or two before writing up his report.

Income, however small, is always welcome. I discover that Writer’s Forum owe me £80 from last June and bang out a repeat invoice. I send welcome letters to a couple of new students (at the agreed fee of £2.00 a time.)

Having heard that my radio  play is about to be repeated, I get all excited and call BBC Contracts at Bristol. The good feeling doesn’t last long. They remind me that my original contract was for two transmissions, meaning I get nothing for the repeat.

Two new mss drop through the letter-box. There’s a 270-pager on ‘My Life As Lady Purser With a Well Known Shipping Line’, and a second: ‘My Life of Hell With A Sick Mother, a Sick Aunt, An Ailing Grandmother, An Impotent Husband of Seventy-Eight and A Seven-Year-Old Who Screams All The Time – And By The Way My Mother’s Dog Was Sick Too And We Had to Put It Down’. Happy days, but another £400 or so in the bank.

I write to welcome three new OCA students, all Starters, and two of them inherited from a tutor who’s died (it’s an ill wind…). Another £6.00 on the monthly invoice. 

Out of the blue, a call from some guy from Scarborough, a stand-up comedian and sky-diving Elvis impersonator who wants a script-writer. We will meet in a pub next week. I will spend several weeks on this, penning a decent enough half-hour episode, and then he will go strangely silent.

I send off a travel piece about Oklahoma art galleries to the Daily Telegraph’s travel editor. He snaps it up. That’ll be about £350.

So that’s a slice of one journal. I am exhausted just reading it. One day I may have the energy to trawl through the whole lot, roughly 1,500,000 words. I wonder whether I’ll laugh or cry.

And the left field moment? Just after I’d started a winter’s work at the sugar-beet factory I heard that I’d been selected as Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence in Orlando Florida.
The Jack Kerouac House, behind the giant live oak